Lick Observatory

Mark Goodman

This is part of an 8-part series about growing up with Asperger’s in a different era.


Late Summer, 1946

Though the sun was half an hour from slipping behind the distant mountains to the west, it was still hot.  My mother, and I having just turned thirteen, were waiting at the bus depot in San Jose for a special coach to ferry us to the summit of Mount Hamilton east of town.  I could just make out our destination shimmering in the haze: the famed James Lick Astronomical Observatory.

I’d been reading all week in preparation for the visit.  About how the observatory had been constructed, the problems associated with casting and polishing the 12-inch lens, hauling the precious cargo up the mountain via a team of mules along a narrow, winding and precipitous path.  Though the observatory presently enjoys world-class status, its first two telescopes were made available to the public on select Friday nights during the summer as specified in Lick’s will.

Back and forth, back and forth I paced in front of the depot, eager to be on our way.  My head spun with thoughts of towering telescopes and whirling planets, distant stars and remote galaxies.

How exciting it had been, contemplating distant worlds unimaginable distances from our own, not the ones dreamt up by gifted science-fiction writers and Hollywood.  But real worlds too far away to be seen even with our best telescopes.  A budding sci-fi fan, I had come to feel more at home on imaginary worlds than the one I inhabited.

I was soon to gaze upon real objects in the sky for myself, something sci-fi even at its finest could only emulate.  How drab my earthbound existence seemed compared to the beckoning, unexplored reaches of space teeming with distant suns, maybe even a few harboring planets similar to ours.

Presently a queer-looking contraption pulled up to the curb and braked to a stop.  I paid it little heed at first since my thoughts were worlds away.  A swirl of empty candy wrappers and newspapers momentarily spun about in a cloud of dust.  I closed my eyes and held my breath as I turned away.

Presently Mom dashed out of the terminal and approached the vehicle.  After a few words the driver eased himself out and opened a door behind him.  She climbed in and he shut the door, opened another behind her and bade me get in.

The vehicle was an overly-long, squarish contraption resembling two ‘30’s-style cars seamlessly joined in the middle.  A fine layer of dust veiled its exterior whose lustre had long since been polished into oblivion.  A few remaining islands of chrome reflected the sun’s waning rays; a quick glance revealed four rows of hard seats, their worn, faded surfaces crisscrossed with a myriad irregular cracks resembling elephant’s skin.  The upholstery on the sides and top looked so fragile I dared not touch it.

The driver fairly filled up the front seat. He was a grizzled old man with large, kindly eyes topped with heavy silvery eyebrows.  A thick rim of closely-cropped, curly grey hair rimmed the sides and back of his head in the form of a fuzzy horseshoe.  Our eyes met for a fleeting second in the rearview mirror and he winked.

He shifted into reverse and backed from a parked car in front, shifted again and after a low growling moved deftly into the stream of traffic.

“How long does it take to reach the top,” Mom asked, breaking the silence.  I was glad she’d spoken first since I was too shy to say anything.

“Depends.  Forty five minutes to an hour on good days,” boomed the reply from up front.  “Longer if it’s raining.  Longer still or not at all when it snows which doesn’t happen often.”  I recalled seeing a dusting of white on the summit the previous winter.

I’d never experienced such a smooth, quiet ride; it was as if we were gliding on a cushion of air or a skating rink.  It was delicious.  I closed my eyes, visualized myself whizzing through the vacuum of space.  But quickly opened them again not wanting to miss anything.

San Jose in 1946 was different from what it had become.  It didn’t require much to see what the area offered: broad, unspoiled spaces, a benign climate, nearby Stanford University in Palo Alto and the University of California in Berkeley, both top-rated.  San Francisco forty-five miles to the north boasted a rich and varied history and cultural events unequaled in that part of the world.  Land was cheap and plentiful.  Industry had barely touched the area and air pollution was unknown.  This part of California was a fine place to raise a family.

Vast tracts of land in the Santa Clara valley had been devoted to orchards and vineyards.  Row upon row of apple, cherry, orange, and grapefruit trees could be seen for miles, occasionally alternating with vineyards which produced some of the finest wine in the region.

We purred our way to the town limits and beyond.  Neat rows of clapboard houses and bungalows gave way to mathematically precise rows of trees in the orchards.  Broad stretches of gently rolling hills carpeted in brown spoke of rainless summers.

We began to climb.  The road became narrower and smooth riding gave way to bumpity-bump.  By the time we began the long, steep ascent the road had narrowed to where two cars passing each other just might squeeze by without exchanging paint.

We came to a sharp uphill curve and for an instant blue sky was all I could see in front.  The driver slowed nearly to a stop and shifted into low.  The old bus chugged laboriously up a steep incline I thought would never end.  Just before the road straightened I caught a glimpse of San Jose off to my left some distance below.

The going was slow and tortuous now.  Once or twice I thought we were about to plunge down the mountain.  The driver slowed almost to a stop, coasted backward a few feet and shifted into low, proceeded to creep up a steep, twisting switchback.  I dug my fingernails into the back of the seat in front of me in those pre-seatbelt days.

After we leveled off I screwed up the courage to ask, “Anyone ever gone off the edge?”

“Oh sure,” replied the driver with a glibness I didn’t find reassuring.  He glanced up briefly and his mirrored eyes met mine.

“Happens every once in a while.  And you know why?  Some people are in too big a hurry to reach the top or get back down.  You gotta pay ‘tention to what you’re doin’ up here—a moment’s lapse can spell disaster.  Some of the worst cases are those who thought they knew what they was a-doin’ but foun’ out they didn’t the ‘ard way.”

“How many times you been up and down the mountain,” Mom asked.  She scribbled notes on a pad resting on her lap as he spoke.

“Can’ say fer certain.  Stopped counting after the first thousand.  An’ that was years ago.”

“Bet you put on more than a few miles over the years,” she added.

“Over three hundred thousand.”

“My, that many?  How come the engine’s not all worn out?  This must be hard on it.”

“I have it thoroughly gone over several times a year.  If anythin’ shows sign of wear it gets replaced pronto.”

“Ever have an accident,” she asked after finishing what she had been writing, flipped the page under.

“A coupla’ times.  Once it snowed and I thought I could make it.  Ran off the road into a ditch.  Another time part of the road washed out after I’d reached the top.  On the way back down I thought I could squeeze by ‘cause it din’t look that bad in the dark.  Slid down a good hundred feet before nearly losin’ it.  Good thing for the mud or I might’ve bought it.”  A chuckle.  “Took a week to get this here bus dried out and cleaned up.”

“Anyone ever get killed?”

“Drinkin’ ‘n’ drivin’ don’t mix anywhere, leas’ of all up here.  Once in a blue moon some kid gets it into his head to test his skills.  One came a-roarin’ up the mountain in the dead of night a few years ago.  Found his body over a hunert feet from his car which came through relatively unscathed.  Just last year three teens met their end when their car ran off the road and tumbled down the mountain.  Then there was this big-shot ‘stronomer from the East who rented a fancy car and came blasting up here one night like it was the Jersey ‘pike.  Missed a turn and that was the end of ‘im.  This road humbles ‘em real quick.”

We were higher now.  In one panoramic view I took in the Santa Cruz Mountains to the southwest, King’s Mountain far to the west, ran my eye along the irregular eastern coastline of the Peninsula ending at a distant clot of skyscrapers marking downtown San Francisco to the north.  The city’s western portion lay buried under a massive wall of silvery-white clouds, their tops pinked by the setting sun.  I barely made out two orange spires floating above like a pair of disembodied spirits; I’d never seen the Golden Gate Bridge thus arrayed.

The fading sun cast long, sinuous shadows of the mountains over the landscape below, bathing everything in an eerie purplish red.  I stared out the window, transfixed, until we rounded a curve and the scene vanished.

“How many times do you make the trip each day,” Mom was asking, pen poised, ready to commit to paper each incoming scrap of information.

“Depends.  Some days I come up only once, others it might be four or five times when somethin’ big’s happenin’ in the sky and the ‘stronomers get all fired up.  Like a coupla’ years ago when somebody discovered an atmosphere on one of Saturn’s moons.”

Titan,” I piped up.

“Things pick up some when there’s a lunar eclipse.  Solar eclipses pack ‘em in if it’s anywhere near total.  I’m told all hell would break loose if we ever got a total.  Won’t happen in my lifetime I’m told.”

Or mine either unless I go somewhere else, I thought ruefully.

“Don’t you ever get tired going up and down all the time?”

“Oh sure, maybe after a busy day.  But next day I’m ready to do it all over again.  An’ you know why?  Take a look down there.  A good look.  God’s Paradise.  How many places have you seen like this?”

The view was breathtaking.  The driver slowed to a crawl.  “Ever seen so much unspoiled land in a setting like this?  I’ve been over many parts of the world and not seen the likeness of this.  Been in some nifty places but somethin’s wrong with every one—too hot or cold, too dry or wet, war, famine, overpopulation, pestilence, cyclones, earthquakes, pollution, corruption—you name it.  What you see down there is unique in place and time.  Nothin’ like it anywhere.”  He paused, lowered his voice, “Take a long, hard look because someday this’ll be gone, ruined beyond repair.  It’s too perfect, too beautiful to be let alone.  Now everybody knows about it or soon will.  People are already startin’ to pour in from the East and Midwest and points between.  They’ll bring their kids, cats and dogs, prejudices, factories, slums, crime—everything that drove their ancestors west generations earlier.

“Columbus began it all, setting off the greatest and some say the most devastating migration in the history of mankind nearly four centuries ago.  West, west, ever westward.  End of the line because there ain’t nothin’ but water over them mountains,” he said, aiming a finger toward the west.  “No more ‘Westward Ho’ unless you can swim or find yourself a boat.”  He paused, sighed.  “I can thank my lucky stars I won’t be around to see what’s a-comin’, thank my lucky stars I’m alive here and now, this very minute.  Because what you see down there is doomed and won’t come again.

“It’s started already,” he continued after a brief pause, having warmed up to the topic.  “There’s already talk of replacin’ this road with a sleek two-laner.  Then everyone an’ his uncle can come blastin’ up litterin’ the roadside with pop and beer bottles, cigarette butts and car parts.  This road is precious to me just the way it is, kind o’ sacred you might say.”  Another pause, longer this time.  “Guess that’ll mean my job.  Won’t be comin’ and goin’ much longer anyway since I passed retirement age goin’ on ten year ago.  Meanwhile I’ll keep a-goin and a-comin’ as long as they’ll have me—guess it’s in me blood.”

I wondered how many times he’d dished out that spiel.  I paid little attention at the time but his prognostications proved startlingly accurate.  In a way I was glad he’d likely passed on before seeing too much of what was happening to his beloved world, today known by the sobriquet Silicon Valley.  Am I the only chronicler of this old man and his prophetic words?

The road straightened some and we picked up speed.  Nobody spoke as clumps of trees whizzed by playing hide ‘n’ seek with the valley below.

Farther ahead the road widened some and I spied a cluster of what looked like houses.  A slender, youngish-looking chap was standing in front of one.  Other than a neatly-trimmed moustache and thin, wispy eyebrows he had not a hair on his head I could see.  The driver approached and slowed to a stop.  The young man opened the door behind me and hopped in, pulled it shut.

“Allow me to introduce you to Arnold who works at the observatory,” the driver announced, starting up again.

Mom introduced herself and me since I was too shy to speak up.  “What do you do up here,” she asked.

“Mostly maintaining the ‘scopes,” he replied.  “I work days when the astronomers are away or sleeping.  Installin’ a new camera after visiting hours tonight.”

“Ever look through the telescopes?” she asked.

“Every chance I get.”

“First time for us,” Mom said.  “We can hardly wait to get there.”

“You won’t be disappointed,” Arnold said, a touch of reverence poking through.  “I’ve gazed through countless times.  Never tire of it, never shall.  Gives me a kick every time.”

Lucky guy, I thought, envious.

“That’s why I stay on despite the isolation and low wages.”

“How much farther,” I asked, scarcely able to control my eagerness.

“Practically there,” announced the driver.

We climbed some more and went around a bend and the road became straighter and wider.  Still, all I could see were trees and shrubs.  An occasional fleeting glimpse of the valley made me want to see more. “Go ‘way trees,” I said to myself, wishing they weren’t so tall.

As if on cue they suddenly parted.  Now I could see great distances in nearly all directions.  Ahead to my right I spied a long, low building with a round bulge at each end, the one on the left bigger than the other.  We were in the final approach and would soon be coming in for a landing.

We entered a parking lot and braked to a stop.  “End of the line,” barked the driver.  We piled out, stretched and headed for the observatory.  I was glad Mom insisted on my taking along a jacket because it was already chilly.

On the way I stopped abruptly, transfixed.  Far off to the north I spied a hazy glow that was downtown Francisco, and across the Bay another, smaller glow marking Oakland and Berkeley to the northeast.  Twinkling streetlights cast their collective glow into the gathering night.  Part of the Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco to Oakland came into view, easily identified by a long row of orange, fog-penetrating sodium lamps.  I ran my eye down the Peninsula from Mount San Bruno, attempting to identify as many towns as I could: Millbrae, San Bruno, San Mateo, San Carlos, Redwood City, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Santa Clara.  A larger cluster of streetlights marked San Jose.  Farther to the south I barely made out what I later learned was Gilroy, beyond that inky blackness.

I returned my gaze northward, became aware almost as an afterthought of long rows of moving lights: automobile headlights.  A long, slender string of them moving in opposite directions north and south, just to the west of the water’s edge, had to be Bayshore Highway in its pre-freeway era.  Next I caught sight of a moving object with a bright light in front followed by neat rows of lights divided into segments heading south: a commuter train on its way toward San Jose.  Countless pinpoint lights, many moving and others not, twinkled and danced for the same reason stars do: air turbulence.

A nearly full moon tinged with orange hung low in the southeast, illuminating the landscape with a pale, almost silvery glow.  I was taken in by the scene, thoughts of distant suns and faraway planets momentarily blotted out by the wonders of my own world, a world I’d lived in all my life but hadn’t really seen until now.

“C’mon, Mark. The telescopes await,” Mom called out, breaking the spell.  I remained a moment longer, torn between what lay below and what lay above.  I turned my gaze upward to see the stars shining with a brightness and clarity I’d not seen before.  A meteor streaked across the sky and vanished.  Another moving light caught my attention, its light winking on and off.  Puzzled at first, I realized this was an airplane, probably on its way to or from San Francisco International Airport in Millbrae, seventeen miles south of San Francisco.  I strained to see the blue runway lights but couldn’t locate them.

We reached the observatory and went in.  A long, high-ceilinged hall greeted us, solid and Victorian since it had been erected in the 1880’s.  One wall was lined with cabinets fronted by large glass doors.

I sauntered over to one and peered inside.  I half-expected to see a display of retired telescope components, perhaps photos of the observatory’s early years with brief captions explaining their history and functions.  Turned out that was at the other end of the hall.

Instead all I could see were handsomely-bound volumes, the kind of old that hints of sacredness and reverence.  I stood in awe before them, wondered who their authors were, how anyone could have written so much.  A faint musty, leathery aroma emanated from behind the glass, suggestive of great and wonderful happenings in distant lands and times past.  I wanted to reach inside, take one down, open its pages and behold the magic of the printed word and maybe some pictures of faraway, exotic lands.

A guide directed us to one end of the hall.  We came upon an opening and entered.  It was dark inside but light enough to where I could just make out a long, slender tube-like object balanced near its middle on a large black mount.  I gazed transfixed at what I knew was the 12-inch refracting telescope, the first put into service soon after the observatory’s completion.  Though on the small side even then, and now seventy years old, it looked as though it had been made only yesterday, its components gleaming in the dim light.  I thought of Arnold.

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I made out the observation platform near the telescope’s business end.  Someone up there was peering into the eyepiece while a dozen or so people stood in line in front of the stairs below awaiting their turns.  Mom and I joined the queue.

Meanwhile I studied the darkened interior.  The circular room was perhaps fifty feet in diameter.  From what I could make out the wall consisted of varnished vertical strips of wood fitted like those of a wine cask.  The dome, which sat atop the wall on rollers, was so round, so smooth-looking I wondered how the wood had been cut and treated to bend and be tapered exactly the right amount.  I imagined what fun it must’ve been seeing the pieces go together and the finished product for the first time; it had to be a labor of love, of history in the making.

A narrow opening, whose edges were parallel, ran from the dome’s bottom to its apex.  The width of this opening could be controlled by a pair of curved sliding doors mounted on the outside. They could be opened to let in the light or closed to keep out the weather.  The telescope was aimed at this opening far above.

I heard a muffled thump followed by a rumbling, and the dome began to rotate clockwise seen from below.  After turning maybe five or six degrees, it stopped.  I beheld the moon through the opening now, and it dawned on me that’s where the telescope was aimed.

After what seemed an eternity it came our turn.  “You first,” Mom said.  Since the moon was still low in the sky, the telescope was tilted approximately twenty degrees from horizontal.  That meant a long climb up steep stairs to the observation platform. Each step Mom and I took caused the entire assembly to jiggle slightly but I wasn’t afraid.  When we reached the top, or birdcage as one book described it, an attendant pressed a button and the platform rose slightly so I could peer through the eyepiece without having to stand tiptoe.  I got into position and peered through.

The moon!  What a glorious sight!  It looked just like what I’d studied in astronomy books.  But this–this was the real thing!  I was blown away, utterly smitten!  No Hollywood mockup, no cardboard cutout, no photograph, no drawing, no fakery.  I was viewing the moon first-hand via a world-class telescope!  One couldn’t get closer to it without actually going there.  For a few priceless seconds our worlds became as one.

The mostly grey image shimmered and rippled before my eye, a consequence of ever-present atmospheric turbulence.  I beheld craters which hadn’t changed significantly for billions of years, the same craters whose reflected light the dinosaurs must’ve seen.  A tingle ran up my spine.  I stood motionless, enthralled as I studied this lifeless world’s craggy meteor-pocked face, taking in as much detail as I could.  So little time!  So much to see, so much to learn—to explore and to wonder over!  I felt I could almost reach up and touch the moon’s surface never mind its being a quarter of a million miles distant.

I became aware of a gentle tugging on my arm.  “Other people want to see too, Mark,” whispered Mom into my ear.  With considerable reluctance I pulled away—then went back for a one more quick look before stepping aside.  Mom stepped up and placed her eye behind the eyepiece.  The attendant lowered the platform so she could look through without having to stoop.  She peered into the eyepiece for what seemed a long time, saying nothing.  So did nearly everyone else, I soon noticed.  What could one say?

I stole every chance I got to dash back up and press my eye against the eyepiece again and again.  I felt an unspoken kinship with Arnold and his lonely quest who never tired of the magic so far yet so near.  I wished we could’ve taken him back with us for a day or two—what tales he might’ve told!  Mom repeatedly had to call me away out of deference to the others awaiting their turns.

Presently a young astronomer with a mop of black curly hair and dark eyes sauntered in, explained a few basics before offering his services as a guide.  He asked if there were any questions.  Any questions!?!  I had a jillion, not knowing where or how to start given the chance.  I was too shy to say anything, in the meantime overhearing his replies to questions asked by others.  I was impressed by his depth of knowledge; I would’ve given much for the opportunity to have him to myself for a day or two.  I knew he couldn’t answer all of my questions because nobody can.  Hearing his replies would’ve sufficed because I knew they’d be intelligent, thought-provoking; given the opportunity I’d have kept him up all night.

Finally, after many of the visitors had drifted away, I screwed up enough courage to blurt out my first question.  Finding him amiable I was soon pelting him with so many he hadn’t got through answering one before I launched the next.

What was the farthest one could see?  How did astronomers know where to aim their telescopes at stars too faint to see with the naked eye, and whose presence could be revealed only after many nights of successive exposures?  How did the telescope “know” how to move in exact synchrony opposite to the earth’s rotation so objects appeared steady in the field of vision?  Were there more planets beyond recently-discovered Pluto?  Wouldn’t they be too dim to see at such great distances?  Any possibility of life on frigid Titan with its newly-discovered atmosphere?  How are huge lenses ground to such perfection?

He answered a number of questions by taking me up to the birdcage and pressing one or another button on the control panel.  Press one and the slit overhead widened, press another and it narrowed, press yet another and the dome began to rotate and so forth.  He removed the eyepiece and put in another, bade me look through.  Now the moon was bigger.  But the image was dimmer and the shimmering made it almost impossible to make out any detail.  Why, why, why?  How could anyone know so much about such things!?

He switched off the tracking apparatus long enough for the moon’s image slowly to glide out of view.  “That’s what keeps her on course,” he explained, indicating a complicated array of gears and pulleys dimly visible through an opening in the base.  He touched another button and the image slid back into view.

Mom had in the meantime drifted into conversations with several of the other visitors so wasn’t paying me much attention.  That worked in my favor, allowing my world to expand at warp speed.  Presently she rescued the astronomer by offering me what I’d nearly forgotten: a bigger telescope at the opposite end: the 36-inch reflector with nine times the light-gathering capability of its smaller twin.

Suddenly eager to be off, I hurriedly thanked the astronomer and fairly bolted down the long hall.  “Wait for me,” Mom called out from behind.  Along the way I beheld the glass-enclosed tomes again.  I slowed down momentarily, again humbled by their presence.  Why hadn’t I asked him about them?

In many respects the other observatory resembled the first outside of being substantially larger and its contents more sophisticated.

I got in line to await my turn, couldn’t stop fidgeting on account of my eagerness. After my eyes accommodated to the dim light once again, I saw off to my right a massive base on which rested the outline of a huge open-frame telescope somewhat resembling an oversized Tinkertoy inclined at a high angle.

Finally, it came my turn.  I scampered up the steep stairs two at a time, caught sight of a complicated-looking control panel crammed with buttons and lights, a few winking on and off.  I approached the eyepiece, tilted my head back and peered through.

What I beheld took my breath away; nothing could have prepared me for the impact.  Jupiter!  King of planets!

I soaked up its broad bands of color, my eye pausing briefly to caress the Great Red Spot.  Two—or was it three—Galilean moons were just visible.  Or were they distant stars instead?  One I knew was for real because it cast a pinpoint shadow on Jupiter’s surface in line with the sun’s direction, a micro-solar eclipse.  The image wavered and danced just as had the moon.  Goose bumps ran up my back.

A selection from Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring ran through my head, this rousing work having left its indelible mark on my psyche thanks to Walt Disney’s recently released Fantasia.  I’d already seen the movie several times, planned on seeing it again when it returned to local theatres.  It carried its own magic, in particular the parts I loved the most: Rite accompanying the formation of Earth out of the void, the staccato boom of mountains blasting into existence in the blink of a cosmic eye, life’s humble beginnings, a tyrannosaurus with glaring teeth and stegosaurus with its triangular plates having it out to the accompaniment of a thunderstorm at night, doomed dinosaurs lumbering across the land parched with drought, the merciless, blinding sun overhead.  While the story line has changed markedly in light of subsequent knowledge since the film’s making, the thrill and wonder remain.

Mom had to come up and get me since I did not hear her calling from below.  “My, that’s something!” she exclaimed after peering through the eyepiece.  “I can see why you didn’t hear me.”  I stole one more lingering look before we descended.

Again I thought of Arnold.  I pictured him dashing up the stairs for a quick peek, or maybe a long one if nobody else was about.

On our way out I met the curly-haired astronomer in the hall, this time remembering to ask, “What are all these books about?”

“Photographs of the sky through the telescopes over the years,” he replied. “A catalogue of the heavens, you might say.”

Was that all, I wanted to ask, a mite disappointed.  My vision of exotic life forms inhabiting impossibly distant worlds died, though not completely.  I took comfort knowing the Moon was real, Jupiter was real.  As we made our way back to the coach I gazed once again upon the valley below with its myriad twinkling lights.  That too was real, and my living out there somewhere was real.  I came away with a new appreciation of my own world.

That night I knew I wanted to be an astronomer, spend my evenings staring at the wonders in the heavens.  But that was not to be because becoming such places heavy demands on one’s ability to do well in school, mathematics and physics in particular, unhappily my weakest subjects.

I remember little of the journey back down the mountain because I soon fell asleep.  I dreamt about Jupiter and the moon, of distant worlds attainable only in our dreams and imagination.